AUGUSTA, Maine — Supporters and opponents of establishing a consumer-owned utility in Maine both made changes to their ballot initiatives in the past week in attempts to render the other ineffective ahead of a possible referendum fight next year.
The behind-the-scenes referendum war is the latest front in the fight over Maine’s energy future and could set up a confusing election if both make the ballot in 2022, though neither side has yet begun gathering signatures. It comes on the heels of a more than $60 million referendum aimed at stopping Central Maine Power’s attempt to build a transmission line in western Maine to bring hydropower from Canada that Mainers will vote on in November.
The idea of establishing a consumer-owned utility, first floated by Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, in 2019, came in response to public anger with rates and quality of service provided by CMP and Emera Maine, now known as Versant. A report the next year found that the plan would likely increase rates in the short term but costs would go down over time.
After Gov. Janet Mills vetoed a bill this summer that would have sent a proposed takeover of the two energy companies to Maine voters, supporters of a consumer-owned utility launched an effort in August to implement a similar plan via the citizen’s initiative process.
But a group backed by CMP, Maine Affordable Energy, filed in September to collect signatures for its own referendum that would require separate public approval of any project that required the state to assume more than $1 billion in debt. The proposal could cover a range of projects but targets the consumer-owned utility, which would require the state to borrow billions at low interest rates in order to buy out Versant and CMP.
After Maine Affordable Energy announced its plan for a ballot question, proponents of the utility modified their proposed referendum to exempt it from debt approval requirements, ensuring that, if both questions passed simultaneously, borrowing for a consumer-owned utility would not be subject to another vote.
In response, the CMP-backed group updated its own referendum on Friday to include a provision to make the debt approval law go into effect 90 days after it passed, meaning it would supersede the consumer-owned utility referendum and force another vote to approve the debt.
The back-and-forth battle over referendum changes could go on longer. Under state law, proponents of citizen-initiated laws can alter their proposal up until giving consent for the final wording of the question to the secretary of state’s office. After that, they can begin collecting signatures, with more than 63,000 from registered voters needed to make the ballot.
Berry said Monday that he believed the energy company was trying to scare voters and avoid an “apples-to-apples comparison” of the cost differences between the status quo and a consumer-owned utility.
“They do not want Maine voters to know that consumer owned utilities are locally controlled, more reliable, and more affordable,” he said.
But Willy Ritch, executive director of the CMP-aligned group, called it “frustrating and outrageous” that consumer-owned utility proponents tried to get around his question, but added that his side will respond in kind.
“We’re going to make sure our proposal has the force of law,” Ritch said.
BDN writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.